My father's Mass was at Saint Rosalia's, where he was once an altar boy. The statues were palled in black and to my mind they were taken blindfolded through the service so they wouldn't see the fraud. Of course the priest was not told. He was an Italian priest who had written a book about the Shroud of Turin and believed that Christ rose from the dead in a blaze of radiation that printed the image of the body on the cloth like human shadows on pavements at Hiroshima. My father said that in all the patients he'd opened on the operating table, he never saw a soul.
His casket was a lustrous affair of varnished walnut, you could get lost staring into the veins, and as we left the church the priest wagged a wand of holy water and the beads stood out on the gloss of the wood in the light of the open doors.
I saw those beads of water and thought of a painting that hung in our house, a still life with four apples on a varnished table. There were beads of water on the apples and the wood. Every bead had its speck of white paint, its point of reflected light, gleaming in the water like a firefly in a jar. I was with my parents, I was twelve, one summer in Italy -- in Venice -- crossing bridge after bridge over trashy water, and we entered a shop full of paintings. The dealer spoke a rapid English and spun a web around my parents with canvases he knew they wouldn't buy, then called up his own special favorite tucked away in back -- he'd hate to have to part with it but would they like just to have a look?
And there were the apples looking so ripe and real you could almost eat them; and for fifteen years they dripped kitsch over our fireplace, the evidence of a golden age when my father, who in his last years didn't have the use of his legs, could walk through an afternoon in Venice and buy a still life of apples -- which was strange because he hated apples, hated anything to do with apples. He said it started when he was a boy and his father, a small-time bootlegger during Prohibition, had made him stand in a barrel and squash apples to make some sort of apple liquor. My father said the squelching and the smell sickened him of apples forever. You had to believe him. Even the smell of a core browning in a wastebasket would keep him up at night.
His last words, spoken to my mother, were: "Don't tell anyone."
His patients came to him, came to Dr. Frank Rapallo as to a father confessor, and he would hide his shock as he listened across his desk in the knotty pine-paneled privacy of his consultation room. He said that as a doctor he had heard "everything." Growing up, I wanted to know what "everything" was. I would eavesdrop in the landing of the stairs in our house, the landing was dark and smelled of our dog, and scraps of my father's conversation would come my way, rounding the bend in the hall, floating up the stairs past the fleur-de-lis wallpaper to the snoring dog and me.
Something about a woman and three men in a motel. A case of pelvic inflammatory disease so advanced it stank up his office. A grisly tale of "sodomy" (the word he selected after hearing me trot up the stairs but not complete the ascent) in the men's room of a railroad station.
For a man so worldly-wise, his innocence was inexhaustible. "Everything" -- his code for depravity and the wages of sin -- never lost its punch. Contemptuous of drunks and addicts of all kinds, he could say with equal vehemence that no one had the complete moral surefootedness, or possessed the perfect moral compass, to prevent a Dantesque deviation into the Dark Wood of "everything." All such wanderings from the straight and narrow he ascribed to weakness. He knew nothing more damning than to say that so-and-so's behavior showed a lack of moral fiber. The world was sick, infected, and only strength of will could defend against the contagion.
Beware of vacillation -- it could be a symptom. He was uncomfortable with doubt. I suppose it was to be expected from a man who couldn't shrug. When I was seven he had radiation treatments for a rare form of cancer in his right shoulder. The radiation melted the cancer but its broad burn left the shoulder hard and brown as a saddle, and the pressure on the nerves to the right arm eroded its ability to move. So to try to save the arm -- as a surgeon my father needed more than most men the use of both hands -- he was operated on to remove the collarbone and a knot of dead tissue from the shoulder. The wound burst its sutures and refused to heal, cut as it was through bad skin, and the hole that opened was big enough to fit my hand.
I was there the day the dressings were unwrapped and he stood in front of a mirror and looked into his hole. I know he understood then that it would never close -- I know, from the look on his face.
Wounds weren't new to me. On Sundays we used to watch movies of operations. I was six, seven years old, small enough to fit beside him in a reclining chair. It was my job to close the venetian blinds, and in the green dusk, livers, spleens, stomachs, colons, gallbladders cowered under the knives, grew steel stars of retractors and forceps, shuddered and blurred when the film slipped in the sprockets. The projector always seemed to run a little slow, shaking a cocktail of gravel and phlegm out of the voice that said what the gloved hands were doing. The hands went about their androgynous work of butchering and sewing, murder and repair, and I lay wedged beside my father's ribs, feeling his breathing, aware of the chipped buttons on his flannel shirt as his warm stomach rose and fell.
He once had me watch him operate. She was nineteen years old, and the green shrouds were folded back to bare the surgical site. I'd never seen that part of a woman before. An icy lamp stared down between her gaunt hipbones, and her belly button sat in the soft swell between them like a pebble in a frozen puddle.
Quickly the skin was painted brown with antiseptic, the brown trickles running down her flanks. My father narrated the proceedings for me like the voice in those movies. The knife, skating across the painted belly, left beads of blood. Somehow the girl's head seemed not attached to the carnage, as though my father were a magician and the girl his glittering assistant tossing her hair and smiling as he sawed her in half, but when the lips of her wound were parted with clamps I saw the link between the open belly and the sleeping face, the little sausage link, her ruptured appendix, girdled with pus. My father dazzled me with a length of blue intestine, just to show it to me, unraveling it in the air. The disembowelment was so fast and done with such ease it was almost slapstick.
As her guts were being molested she moaned. The anesthetist, a quiet Pakistani, studied his gauges, left his dials untouched. Just a minor ripple in the ocean. That ripple still breaks against my shore. I have to listen for it but it comes, and the girl, on command, moans into an ether mask strapped to her helpless beauty
The greenhouse by our front door served as a mudroom, a catchall, and my father said it was dirty and smelly. Sometimes a grackle or robin would fly in through a missing pane and other birds bent on rescue would whirl and cry above our gables. When the greenhouse was torn down I thought it was a shame. It could have been stuffed with African violets and its panes soaped so clean even the sharpest-eyed swooping birds wouldn't have seen it coming. But its very transparency was its offense, and a glass house didn't suit my father any more than the smell and the dirt. He preferred the camouflage, the semblance of triumph, the successful smile. He greeted me with his smile, the one he used on patients, the day he came back from the Boston clinic where they cut off and incinerated his arm. Not an hour later my mother told me he then went into the bedroom and cried. So began the years when I would find him looking enviously at my hands.
He could have sold his practice and gone into teaching, but teaching being the hell of those who cannot, he wouldn't hear of it. Instead he took a young partner who did the cutting while my father scrubbed with one hand and looked on, continued to see patients, to go on his rounds every day, to go to the office, and if you positioned yourself by the stone balustrade of the public library across the street and squinted hard enough, you wouldn't see the other shingle hanging below his, just the patients, the old Italian women, the Poles, the Protestants, the ones who could pay and the ones who couldn't, shuttling up and down the white steps, coming and going as if nothing had happened.
The partner's name was Matthew. Matthew came bright and bouncy, able and compassionate, with an endearing way of dropping his a's, an's and the's. "I call myself blessed one," he said, congratulating himself on his good luck. Matthew was Japanese.
He adopted the name after an early success singing a part in the Saint Matthew Passion at his Presbyterian church. At dinner parties Matthew sang Jerome Kern and Gilbert and Sullivan -- danced on feet tutored at Arthur Murray, and when he smiled the force of his grin made him blink. Pour two drinks in him and his eyes would water and he'd bring up Rashomon and the nature of truth, and when he intellectually name-dropped my father would nod, blink a couple of times himself and bluff his way through.
It struck me that the choice of Matthew as partner might have had something to do with the time my father spent in Japan after V-J Day, though when I speculated aloud about it he said I was reading too much into it. Later, after he died, I went through his sheaves of photographs from the war. In 1944-45 he spent nine months with a heavy bombers unit in the Pacific -- Yap, Truk, Kwajalein, Peleliu, little green topknots lost in the gray ocean, and the war was the first time the world had touched them. I found a curled picture of ostrich-plumed Melanesian hunters frowning with their spears. A village of grass huts on stilts in a lagoon. An outrigger pocketing the wind under smoky clouds. A leper with elephantiasis and no nose. And my father, young, muscular and Italian-handsome, posing with the women painted on the silver snouts of B-29s. With Rita Hayworth kicking in a martini glass on a bomber called Cocktail Hour. With a cheerleader prancing on Fire Power, a .50-caliber machine gun as her baton. With a bathing beauty whose shade of blonde is precisely my mother's (she and my father were married in 1943), on Doc's Delight. Cocktail Hour, Fire Power and Doc's Delight, photographed on Guam in the early summer of 1945, had joined in the terrible incendiary raids over Japan.
My father landed in Japan with the Navy on August 30, 1945, exactly three weeks after Nagasaki (he credited his survival of the war, and therefore my life, to the atomic bomb). The Japan he photographed was almost empty of men. The war seemed to have left the country and its ruins to women and children and the eleven frustrated kamikazes grouped in one picture, pouting boys in white scarves and leather helmets with ear flaps like pathetic little wings.
And a pair of Japanese doctors. Six, seven pictures of the same two. One is older, balding, with a thin moustache. The younger one is angular. Both wear the round spectacles of cartoon Japanese. They stand in the broken shade of a ginkgo tree in front of their hospital, or sit in willow chairs with children and a brood of young nurses in white, or bend over an operating table while my father looks on. On the back of this last photograph was written, in the sharp elegant hand my father had when he had a right arm: Hiowara's surgery -- Nov 1945 -- Kisarazu Honshu.
The war should have been the greatest medical school on earth -- he just hadn't figured on the Navy. In Kisarazu his commanding officer, a shoe salesman in peacetime named Ihnen, told him to do blood tests and pelvics on the local geisha girls before the American soldiers paid their respects, and to do the same on the girls brought in for Ihnen's personal use. It went against my father's grain. When he had turned sixteen, his father, Frank Sr. had him chauffeur up from New York the florydory girls who sang and danced at the speakeasy on Saturday nights. One of the girls was a favorite of Frank Sr.'s, and my father found the two of them, her with her dress hiked up, in a room behind the bar. My father said his moral education began at the speakeasy, under its patterned pressed-tin ceiling, among the drunks and footlights and florydory girls.
Florydory girls, geisha girls -- it must have rung too many bells. There wasn't much my father could do about Ihnen's orders except quietly rebel by "fraternizing" with the defeated enemy.
On an inspection of medical facilities in the shattered town my father had met two surgeons, Dr. Hiowara and the younger Dr. Kubiashi, who had smiled, bowed and invited him to visit again. These doctors had no antibiotics, no streptomycin, no penicillin, no sulfa. They had a few vials of morphine, a microscope, an old German refrigerator and an autoclave. Anesthesia was a cloth dampened with chloroform -- the anesthetist, a nurse clasping the patient's wrist. The doctors had barely a change of surgical instruments and operated without gloves.
My father would pack his black bag with sulfa and penicillin and take a jeep across town with Suzuki the interpreter, a crewcut kid with cherry blossom cheeks. The hospital was a two-storied shuttered building on a street with potted myrtles. The walls inside needed painting, neither doctor spoke English and their medical charts looked like chop suey, but their surgery was superb and spoke for itself. Or rather it spoke in its own language, for these Japanese surgeons used their small hands in place of the Payr clamps and the Kellys and Rankins they didn't have.
They worked in tandem, muttering into sterile masks that smelled of boiling water. My father had one on as he watched, and it seemed to him that the hands were guided not by the surgeons alone but by a presence or principle that was very Japanese. American surgeons went in like raptors, like eagles, but when Dr. Hiowara bent over his table my father could feel, suspended above and behind him, a guiding spirit as serene as Fuji-san, and maybe that was what it was. He saw the mountain everywhere in Japan, saw it before his eyes and in prints, looming perfect and still behind desperate fishermen in wave-tossed vessels, and he saw it in his mind because he never forgot it, the profile of the country, the breast above it all, white and pink in the morning of August 30 as the wedge of attack transports and destroyers drove into Tokyo Bay and the B-29s and C-54s were streaming in low one after the other to land at Atsugi.
As a guest in Dr. Hiowara's house, my father sat crosslegged on a mat in the tea room, and everything he thought he knew about the enemy, the toothy Tokyo Joes and crazed samurai and the cruelty of the Japs, fled from his mind. He was surrounded by paper panels and the inks on paper hung throughout the tidy, airy, light-wooded dwelling. The inks were of shrugging mountains and trees. He looked at them and thought them unfinished. But the brush, by not touching the paper, had painted mists. The same brush could have dabbed the eyebrows on Dr. Hiowara's daughters, aged two and four. Dr. Hiowara said little to his wife. He was a heavy smoker.
Dr. Hiowara talked about the B-29 raids and the cases they produced -- fractures, pulverizations of bone, lacerations, amputations, crushed organs -- and the burn cases and the moral agonies of triage. He said he had learned to read on the human skin the fresh signatures of the three ingredients of the American incendiary bombs, napalm, magnesium and phosphorus. The napalm burns were flayed and mottled, the phosphorus burns were honeycombed, the magnesium burns were silvery. Of course all the dead and maimed were civilians. My father, feeling guilty and ashamed, did his best to hold up his side of the conversation as one doctor to another. He looked for signs of rancor in the dark glitter in Dr. Hiowara's eyes -- and found only experience, fatigue, toughness and a tolerance of fate. It was left to young Suzuki to break down as he stumbled back and forth between Japanese and English, filling the long pauses with his sobbing.
"Your father was so moved by the destruction in Japan," my mother told me. "The people were frightened and starving. And this Japanese surgeon -- Dr. Hiowara, very fond of your father -- had shown such courage through it all, living on a prayer, and your father couldn't get over how gentle he was. And he probably never told you this, but that Japanese man was the one who pointed him toward surgery. Your father didn't know anything then. He was a kid. Didn't know what kind of doctor he wanted to be.
"Did he ever tell you he almost dropped out of medical school? He talked like he was a born a doctor. His first year in medical school, he was so overwhelmed, he wanted to quit, and his father told him he'd never make it. But he stuck with it, and then there was the war, Japan, and when he came back from Japan he had his heart set on being a surgeon."
"I've been feeling much better after divesting myself of my useless member," my father wrote gallantly to a friend in 1964, the year he lost his arm, "but I still get pangs looking over Matthew's shoulder in the OR." The partnership with Matthew was a close and happy one that lasted the duration, and the duration would have been longer than it was -- twelve years -- if the radiation that robbed my father of his arm had not also tainted his spinal cord, so that he lost the use of his legs as well. As the legs began to weaken he would walk arm-in-arm with my mother, she at his left, the two of them trying to pass for a couple growing old together like a pair of entwined trees. Soon she was no longer enough and he had to use a cane, so he got himself one made of Lucite, the closest thing to invisible he could find.
With the cane that flirted with the light, the recent silvering at his temples and the right sleeve slipped in a coat pocket, it was almost as if he had begun to move, piece by piece, to a plane above the physical. But the opposite was true, and when the time came to hide the fact that a spinal cord injury impairs everything below the belt and his days were punctuated with "accidents," he hid behind his family. He made my mother his nurse.
He never stopped working, and sometimes I would go with him to the hospital, holding doors and medical charts as he went on his rounds on an electric scooter. There, on a mild morning, in a smart new wing that overlooked its own tennis court, while under the open windows a yellow ball kissed the sweet spots of two rackets, my father held a forceps in his one hand and pulled wet gauze like a strip of lasagna from a chink in a patient's stomach. He wheeled into another room, wearing a sunny face -- "Here comes the Good Humor man, Mrs. Washington" -- and Mrs. Washington started to laugh, but the slit across her huge middle caught her in the first heave and her eyes clamped over the pain. He took me into a room whose sole occupant was an old man lying on his side, knees up, eyes dim and a queer sound coming from his throat. "Hear that sound he's making? That's caused by mucus," my father said pleasantly, feeling the pleasure of science, and then with a ring of fascination in his voice, like a muffled bell, he said, "That's called the death rattle. This bed will be empty tomorrow, you'll see."
He was blunt with patients who defeated their treatment. "You're signing your death certificate," he said to a man sitting up in bed savoring a smoke after an operation for varicose veins, and with an abrupt two-point turnaround of his scooter, each jolt an electromechanical mockery of his legs, my father quit the room so fast I had to step aside to save my toes.
When he wasn't at the office or the hospital he'd lie at home in a hospital bed downstairs. I was still in school, studying philosophy in New York, and on my visits home I would join him while he communed with the television. He kept an eye out for reruns of Victory at Sea. Its music drew pictures. The strings were the waves and the brass the destroyers with the sea cascading from the decks. The Richard Rodgers themes spoke like show tunes without the words. This was Pearl Harbor with a swarm of metal wasps over the palms. This was the splash of landing ships at Omaha Beach and this stalking tango said what a wonderful passport was war. I'd rub my father's thin legs with witch hazel, they gave off a scent of alcohol and sweet bark, and he'd talk in the voice I remembered from the operating room long ago, when it was a girl on her back.
He recited the names of the wasted muscles under my grip. The soleus, the tibialis anterior, the peroneus longus, the peroneus brevis. Out of his mouth came Latin names and Latinate words and Greek words. That foot tapping for no reason, that was called clonus, a clonic spasm, a sign of nerve damage and not to be mistaken for the normal contraction called tonus. The saddle shoulder, the brown skin was dusky erythema, from radiation necrosis. The bone showing inside the invaginated scar in the shoulder -- his hole, open now for more than a decade -- the bone that looked like a broken bamboo stick, was the stump of the right clavicle. The porcelain gleam inside the ulcerated patch in his back was the fifth thoracic vertebra of the spinal column. The condition of collapsed and crooked vertebrae was called kyphosis and scoliosis. The condition of his legs, spastic paraparesis, from radiation myelitis of the spinal cord. The blush on each of his heels was a bedsore in the primary stage. He lay in his bed and took me on his rounds, mentally hovering over himself, a doctor at his own bedside. He talked about the phantom pain in his missing arm. He said he could feel the arm bent across his stomach, feel the pressure on the radial nerve all the way to the wrist.
I said that Descartes had written about phantom pain, from talks with surgeons and wounded combatants of the Thirty Years War.
"What century was that?"
"Seventeenth century," I said.
"Oh, but there are references much earlier," he said. "Nothing's new under the sun."
He reminded me then (maybe it was from watching Victory at Sea) of a soldier being interviewed on the march, the microphone thrust up to his unshaven face as he trudged in a file down a road in Normandy in 1944, except that it wasn't 1944 but the eternal legion of the sick, who have no ties, no country and live outside time in a world apart from the rest of us. He would put his arm behind his head as a headrest and look out the window at the boughs of a dogwood tree. At night he said a possum stationed itself in the fork of the tree, and women came into the room forty and fifty at once. That was classic. When people were bedridden for long periods they stopped thinking about everything except sex. It used to happen to tubercular patients in the old days, he said, when they went to the mountains for the horizontal cure.
We talked about the old days. He was in a retrospective frame of mind. I was cleaning the hole in his shoulder with a swab dipped in ether and he told me to be very careful, that in the Pacific a bottle of ether blew up in his dispensary tent. There were flaming bits of glass all over the place and the flame made an arc through the air, chasing the fumes to an ether-soaked cotton ball a nurse held in her hand.
"God, it seems like yesterday," he said.
I must have been using ether to clean his hole because we were out of peroxide that day. Usually it was my mother who did the honors. Each morning for fourteen years the hole was swabbed with antiseptic and packed with a folded square of white gauze to replace the one from the day before. In his last year my father ran a fever from an infection in the hole, caught during a ten-day stay in a rehabilitation hospital that left him worse than when he went in. From an orderly's unwashed hands, most likely, a bacillus had crept into my father's body, and with that ring of fascination in his voice again, he explained to me that the bacillus was anaerobic, which meant that it could survive, flourish without oxygen, and was headquartered in the necrotic tissues in the shoulder, where the blood vessels had fossilized. The bloodstream had long ago stopped flowing there, so antibiotics by mouth failed. Irrigation with antibiotic solutions, dribbled directly into the hole, failed because the bacillus had burrowed deep.
Surgery failed. When Matthew went in he found the anatomy so distorted he couldn't tell what was what and was afraid of opening an artery. Week after week, with the monotony of chronic disease, the reports came back from the lab with always the same result: a bacillus called Proteus morganii.
But every time my father spelled it, spelled it for my mother when he dictated his notes or made notes himself in his jagged slanting lefthanded script, the result was different: Proteus morgagni. He left the second g silent, as in an Italian name. I once questioned him about this. He said he was right and the lab was wrong, and I left it at that because he was so certain about it, because it didn't seem worth quibbling over, and because there was something else. There was a change coming over his face in those days, like a metal losing its shine, and I thought he was closing his blinds, shutting out his surroundings, in favor of some private business -- memories, maybe?
Maybe so, though now I think he was looking not at his past but at a future that had finally come up close, as close as the mirror when I was a boy and he put his shoulder up to it and first stared into his hole. Then, he was shocked. Now there was no shock, nor resignation or fear as he lay on his bed with the bacillus rejoicing inside him, and if the look on his face was despair then despair is the dullest-edged of emotions. Emotion belongs to life, and he had put that behind him.
He had come to a decision. Here is why I think so. Going over his old papers, I got stuck in the discrepancy between the two spellings, the lab's (Proteus morganii) and my father's (Proteus morgagni), so I did some reading on the side. The lab was right. The bacillus was genus Proteus, species morganii, named after its discoverer, the British bacteriologist Harry de R. Morgan. In 1978 it was reclassified as a separate genus and renamed Morganella morganii. My father died in 1976. If his history had been different by a few years and the lab reports had come back with the double-barreled salute to Morgan, I wonder if he still would have made the mistake of linking the Proteus to another name, a name every medical student knows, the eighteenth-century Italian anatomist Giovanni Battista Morgagni.
Was my father dreaming back to medical school? Did he need a bigger name for the little germ that was getting him at last? But I favor a third interpretation -- and I do believe that in his mistake, his slip, he betrayed a secret, that the secret was a jack-in-the-box under a lid of names, and that he was secretly plotting to kill himself months before he took action. The medical history books call Morgagni the father of modern pathology, the study of the changes wrought in the body by disease. Somewhere in his mind my father saw himself in Morgagni's morgue, and the Italian, fascinated, was picking him apart. "I'm a medical museum piece. A pathologist would have a field day with me," my father said, but he didn't want an autopsy done, when he was dead he wanted to be left alone. What he didn't say was that the pathologist's job would be to determine the cause of death, and my father already knew what it was going to be.
He hated drugs -- that was the official line -- but there were drugs in the doctor's house, drugs of all kinds bestowed on him by drug company salesmen, bottles of Seconal, Butisol, Valium, Nembutal, Tuinal, Demerol and Percodan in the cabinets of an upstairs and a downstairs bathrooms. He had my mother empty the childproof bottles and fill a vial he could open with one hand, snapping the cap off with his thumb.
For months he kept the vial in a drawer by the left side of his bed. The infection pushed his fever up at night to 103 and 104. Toward seven each evening he would watch for the changes in his sensorium. Lights and darks were the first to change, to become more theatrical, the lamplight brighter and the dark corners darker. Warm colors got hot and took on haloes. Things in his peripheral vision began to twitch, there was a ringing in his ears like cicadas, and the heat seemed to lift him up and carry him over the rooftops, across town and back in time to his old neighborhood, Roosevelt Park, when the streetcar rails ran down South Ashworth Avenue and he had a center part in his hair, and on holy days they pinned dollar bills on the statue of the Madonna as it was carried down the street in front of Saint Rosalia's. He liked the business of being an altar boy, liked the procedure, the donning of the white linen surplice, the proper way to pour water on the priest's hands and shake the bell so the ringing was incisive and clean. He even liked the smell of the wine, just the hint of it reaching him as he knelt below the altar when the priest swirled the wine in the chalice to gather the dregs and tipped his head back to swallow every drop.
The bacillus was eating at the subclavian artery. In the last talk I witnessed between my parents my father told my mother that if the artery broke she should leave the room, there would be blood on the ceiling.
Ten days later, while I was away at school, he was helped out of bed, washed, wiped, dressed and driven to his office. He put in three hours seeing patients. When he came home he told my mother he was going to do it that night, and took a nap. She made him a light supper. An old friend from Roosevelt Park dropped in with a bag of gabbagool, Italian fried dough. The friend's name was Domenick but in Roosevelt Park they called him Finch, and the gabbagool was from the place on South Ashworth they called the "New York bakery." My father and Finch talked about it.
I have the scene from my mother. She made Finch a bourbon, poured my father a Sprite, was silent while they went over old stories from the Park, and she thought how beautifully my father had Finch fooled. The two men sometimes lapsed into Italian but she knew the stories by now and could tell them herself. The bakery was called the "New York bakery" ever since 1927 or 1928 when the previous owner sold it to "men from New York" and promised as part of the deal to find another trade. The baker broke his word, started selling loaves out of his house, and one day he was crossing South Ashworth when two bullets from a passing car taught him a lesson he should have known. My father saw it. He was sitting on the step of the corner cigar store, saw the baker leave with a paper under his arm, heard the shots, saw him go down and ran over. The man was on his knees, clutching the paper, and my father watched it get soaked with blood. "Aw kid, look at this," the baker said. "All over my nice new paper."
The second time my father saw a dead man was outside Frank Sr.'s speakeasy. Frank Sr.'s patrons would come wobbling out of the establishment to ease their bladders against the side of the front porch of the house next door. The house belonged to a Pole (there were always a few Poles in the Park, planted by the God of Michelangelo so the Italians could be superbia), and the Pole had warned Frank Sr. that the next time it happened he'd use his shotgun on whoever it was. It happened. Inside the speakeasy they heard the blast, the florydory girls fell out of step, the band stopped and they all went out to see. My father, sixteen years old, knelt over the victim. Finch was there too.
"So there's Doc, right?" Finch laughed to my mother. "The kid bartender over here with his bow tie on, always Mr. Neat-and-Clean, he's kneeling over the guy like he's gonna save him, he doesn't know what to do, but he sees the guy's dick hanging out 'cause he just got shot in the middle of takin' a leak. So he puts the dick back in the guy's pants and zips him up. Why? So the guy could" -- here my father joined in -- "die with dignity!" They laughed. My father had a way of laughing into his cheeks. He didn't laugh, he crackled. Finch went on, "And the Polack got off with a fine because the judge said he gave fair warning."
"He did. He warned Pop," my father said.
"He warned your old man, he didn't warn the other guy -- the hell was that guy's name? Guy who got shot. He didn't get no fair warning. Yeah, they shut the place down after that. The guy gettin' killed, that did it. Christ, that place was great. What a den of iniquity. Lot of New York people there, remember? Lot of people from out of town. You had the florydory girls from the Metropole -- you ought to know about that, Frank -- what'd that hooker say to you that time?"
"`Country boy, I'd like to get you behind the barn.'"
"You had the jazz musicians, the smokes from the Cotton Club all hopped up on reefer -- "
"When they were hopped up I couldn't get them off the stage."
"You had Louie Papolino's men. Those guys were like out of the movies. They all dressed like George Raft. The fedora hats, with the crown a little extra high in front?"
"Pop made it his business to know everybody," my father said.
"Frankie, your old man was in solid with that crowd, don't kid yourself."
My father talked, drifted on to other things. To the iceman with his tongs lugging the blocks of ice out of the truck, and on hot days they'd pull the shades down and a fan hummed at a block of ice in a dishpan. The Park went dead in the summer heat but no matter how high the mercury the streetcar trundled down South Ashworth to the end of the line near the Rapallo house, and when the conductor got out to swing the streetcar around on its pivot my father would run and help -- press his shoulder against the rivets and feel the big thing glide, feel mighty, like he could move the planets.
"Yeah, I remember that. Take it easy, Doc," Finch said, and got up to leave. My mother walked him to the door. By the time she came back to the den my father had emptied his vial of pills. He told her to throw it in the trash and to go upstairs.
It was a cold night in March but she remembers sweating. She answered the telephone. It was my father calling from downstairs, telling her to be sure to empty his urinal in the morning and not to tell anyone. When she came down at five, traveling in the dark through the empty house, he was an iron gray. Matthew was the first one she called, and in a few minutes he was standing reflectively by the bedside. On the death certificate Matthew reported a heart attack. My mother saw him bow -- just a sharp nod really, with his mouth set -- to his partner. The sun was up and burning behind the curtains.
She waited one day before she disobeyed my father's last wish and told me, in the morning before we left for Saint Rosalia's. My instant and unthinking response was that at last I knew him.
"Dr. Rapallo" appeared in the Summer,1996 issue of Press (published in New York) and is reprinted with the permission of Stephen Menick and the publisher.